Initiative 77 Saga Continues

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Restaurateurs, chefs and waitstaff at the office of D.C. Council member Brandon Todd (center). Courtesy Billy Martin.

The saga of the “One Fair Wage DC” initiative, known as Initiative 77 — which would grant all D.C. workers, including tipped workers, a $15-an-hour minimum wage by July 15, 2020 — continues.

Despite strong opposition from restaurateurs and many servers and bartenders themselves, D.C. voters approved the measure in the June 19 primary election by a margin of 56 to 44 percent. About 18 percent of the total electorate cast votes.

But now, a majority of D.C. Council members and some Republican members of Congress want to, in effect, void the vote, either by voting to repeal it or to block funding.

On Tuesday, July 10, a majority of Council members (7 of 13) co-introduced a bill to overturn Initiative 77. Then, on Wednesday, July 11, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), leader of the House Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Alabama), proposed legislation that would block the District from spending money to implement the ballot measure.

Because of the city’s unique federal status, Congress has the power to overturn local laws and spending decisions. In the past, Republicans have blocked D.C. from allocating local funds for recreational marijuana, abortions for low-income women and a needle exchange program designed to reduce the spread of HIV.

“Congress should allow the local legislative process to play out,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told the Washington Post. Council members Jack Evans and Anita Bonds said they don’t want help from Congress to overturn Initiative 77.

“Representatives Meadows and Palmer are up to their old tricks again by abusing congressional authority over the District to try to undemocratically impose their views on our residents,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, in a statement. “Initiative 77 on tipped wages is a local issue that should be decided solely by D.C.”

In fact, the initiative is part of a national campaign by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national advocacy organization dedicated to establishing higher base wages for tipped workers. Unlike other jurisdictions, however, the District has a thriving hospitality industry in which many tipped employees make far more than the minimum wage. Also, in D.C., if tips do not bring the lower minimum wage for tipped employees up to the standard minimum wage, employers are required to make up the difference.

Opponents claim the initiative would require their businesses to increase prices to cover the additional costs, leading to reduced patronage. Furthermore, any surcharge imposed to cover the increased wages would inevitably take away from tips.

Another concern is that the low turnout for the primary election at which Initiative 77 was on the ballot meant that the vote in favor represented less than 10 percent of registered D.C. voters.

The Council plans to hold a hearing on the repeal of Initiative 77 when lawmakers return from summer recess.

Restaurateurs and wait staff petitioned the D.C. Council July 9. Photo by Patrick G. Ryan.
Restaurateurs, chefs and wait staff at the office of D.C. Council member Brandon Todd (center). Courtesy Billy Martin.
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